The Perpetual Beginner

Many years ago, I resolved to try something completely new every year.  My list of activities tried now includes skydiving, hang gliding, bungee-jumping, motorcycle racing, swimming, traveling solo to Peru, rock climbing, being president of a CPSA chapter, and more.  Some of these were one-shot events, others turned into multi-year obsessions.  The underlying goal is to stay in touch with what it’s like to be an absolute beginner at something, with all the ignorance and clumsiness that go with it.

You might wonder why I would do such a thing, when our society encourages us to always take the safe route and stick with what we already know.  1) I love learning and trying new things, and 2) it helps me relate to folks who are new to my favorite subjects and activities, so I can do a better job of explaining or demonstrating.  Too often, experts are not the best teachers, because they don’t remember how they learned. Nobody wants to be talked down to, or be made to feel stupid.

For example, of all the new activities I’ve tried, the most frustrating was rock climbing.  The instructor would start a class by saying something like “Okay, today we’re going to learn smearing. You know what smearing is, right?”  Well of course I didn’t know what smearing was, that’s why I was there! She seemed bored as she half-heartedly demonstrated and then turned the class loose to try with only half a clue.  I learned almost nothing in that class and it certainly didn’t reduce my fear of heights.  It’s a wonder there were no injuries.

Similarly, when I was learning the breast stroke there was a man who was always at the pool who had a very efficient breast stroke, so I asked him for some pointers.  “It’s just kick and pull, kick and pull!” was all he could tell me.  I was already kicking and pulling, but certainly not the way he was, and he didn’t remember anymore how he developed his proficiency.  So I didn’t learn anything from him no matter how much I watched.  (My breast stroke is still terrible.)

This year my “something completely new” was moderating the district chapters forum at the Colored Pencil Society of American convention in Atlanta in July.  When the national board invited me to do it back in January, I accepted with trepidation because the moderator the past two years was so good; how could I possibly fill her shoes?  And I’m an introvert!  The format for the forum is wide open; the moderator can set a theme, or not; take a survey, or not; lead activities, or not, so there is no pre-set structure to fall back on.  There was no teacher to consult this time.  Where to start?  I put a lot of thought into it and decided that if the forum was geared toward helping first-time attendees understand their roles, it could be educational for all attendees.  So I set the theme “Drawing on Education”, and divided the day and a half into five broad education-related topics for discussion.  For the first time, the beginner mentality was both my state of experience and my source of inspiration!

It turned out to be a big success!  Not only did I receive unsolicited praise from attendees who have been to many of these forums, but one even wrote to the national board to say “Have to tell you the 2-day DC Forum was the BEST one I’ve attended – ever.  So much sharing, and especially the great conversations in the Joint Session too.   LOVED every minute – gained lots of “take back to chapter” info!!”  I’m still pinching myself–did I really accomplish THAT on my first time ever doing something like this?

So now, the national board wants me to lead the forum again in July 2016.  Was this year “beginner’s luck”?  Should I do it again?  Can I do it so well again?

And, what will my completely new activity be next year? Check back in a few months to find out….

Fall Workshop Scheduled

Once again, I will be teaching a half-day “Vibrant Realism with Colored Pencil” workshop at the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto, CA!  This one is scheduled for Sunday, October 11, 1:00 – 5:00 PM.  Registration is handled entirely through PAL, so the fee is $73 for PAL members and $85 for non-members.  Read more about it and download the supply list here; to sign up, click here.


Votes of Confidence

Dont Take the Bridge

Don’t Take the Bridge 11″ x 14″, colored pencil on UArt paper.

My Don’t Take the Bridge is safely back from the UKCPS International Exhibition in London. It didn’t win any special awards, but the show organizer was kind enough to scan the “people’s choice” ballots which voted for my piece, and sent them to me.  They mean a lot to me, because these individuals not only chose mine above all the other wonderful artwork in the show, but took the time to explain why.  They may never see my blog posting here, but in case they do, I want to say “Thank you!”.  Here they are.

Denise Howard-4Denise Howard-3Denise Howard-1Denise Howard-2

May is jam-packed!

Today begins my most hectic month of 2015.  As much as I like all the art activities, I’ll be relieved when it’s over!  Here’s a rundown on what’s ahead:

Today (May 1): Opening reception for the Pacific Art League Instructors Exhibit, juried by Anthony Meier of the Anthony Meier Fine Arts Gallery in San Francisco.  My Cricket Time won 1st Place!  The exhibit runs through the 28th.

Tomorrow (May 2): University Art in San Jose is hosting their 2nd annual UCreate Day, a trade show with booths and representatives for many art materials manufacturers, demos, door prizes and special prices.  I’ll be representing Caran d’Ache all day (10 AM – 4 PM) and giving a 45-minute presentation about Supracolor water-soluble colored pencils and Neocolor II water-soluble wax pastels.

May 6-16: UKCPS International Exhibition at the Menier Gallery in London, England.  My Don’t Take the Bridge is in it and it’s my 5th acceptance into this annual show so I have hereby earned “Silver” signature status in the UKCPS.  As I write this, my piece has been in limbo in a postal depot in the UK for two weeks, past customs but not yet picked up by the person who will transport it to the gallery.  Still holding my breath hoping that it makes it to the gallery in time for judging for awards.

May 9-10: Silicon Valley Open Studios.  I’ll have my home studio open for visitors to see “where the magic happens” and displaying many of my originals as well as giclee prints and note cards.  The event runs 11 AM – 5 PM each day.  We’ve already started sprucing up the back yard and deck and cleaning my studio.

May 16-17: Silicon Valley Open Studios.  I’ll be exhibiting with a group of nine other artists outside the Cupertino Library.  We have to put everything up and take everything down and take it home each day, so it’ll be a lot of work.

May 30: Quarterly CPSA chapter meeting at the Bothwell Arts Center in Livermore, 11 AM – 3 PM.  I’ll be one of several artists giving mini-demos as the program.

Notice anything missing in all that?  Creating any new art!  It’ll be a wonder if I finish even a small drawing this month.  I’m tired just reading this schedule–I think I’ll go lie down now!

“Starsky & Hutch” and art

It takes many long hours to finish one of my drawings. I’ve learned to pace myself and take five-minute breaks every hour or so, and one-hour breaks every four hours or so. Recently during one of the long breaks I discovered that reruns of Starsky & Hutch are now on cable TV.  Not to date myself or anything, but high school Denise was a big fan of Starsky & Hutch.  It didn’t win any Emmy awards and the writing wasn’t great, but it’s fun to remember why I had such a crush on David Soul, and my best friend was similarly smitten with Paul Michael Glaser.  So I set the TiVo to record them to watch during my breaks.

After a couple of episodes I remembered that some of the very first graphite portraits I ever drew were of Starsky & Hutch.  As a poor kid I couldn’t afford posters, but I was getting pretty good at drawing, so I bought a couple of magazines with especially good photos of them and drew them bigger to hang in my room.  Copyright wasn’t an issue because they weren’t for sale and there was no internet.  In working from these magazine photos, I had a great excuse to stare at every little detail of their faces, and was very motivated to improve my drawing skills so I could reproduce them. Schoolmates mocked me for having a magazine picture of them in my locker, so I never showed these portraits at school, to avoid even more ridicule.

My portrait of Hutch (David Soul) that I drew at age 15 on awful drawing paper.

My portrait of Hutch (David Soul) that I drew at age 15 on awful drawing paper. 8″x10″

But the last one I did was different.  It was 16″x20″, Starsky in a white suit (remember this was the 70s), sitting on a park bench.  It turned out so well my art teacher asked to show it in the school display case for a couple of weeks, and commissions for portraits of local folks started happening!  I even included it in my portfolio for admission to art school.  A couple of years later in college, someone asked about buying it to give to his sister for her birthday.  I was surprised that anyone remembered it, and I didn’t really want to sell it, so I suggested the ridiculous price of $50.  But that wasn’t high enough, because he bought it, and I never saw it again.  I bought two dresses with that $50 (again, remember this was the 70s!), and I still remember the dresses, but I’d rather still have that drawing in my archives.

My portrait of Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) that I did at age 16.

My portrait of Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) that I drew at age 16. 16″x20″

So what does this have to do with artwork?  Inspiration, motivation, and skill improvement.  It worked for me.  If you like something enough to want to spend hours with it, and you wish you could draw or paint well enough to do it justice, you have all the inspiration and motivation you need for improvement.  Nobody else ever has to see your work, or know that you did it as a fangirl/boy, or think you’re silly, or fret about copyright.  It’s all for you.  If it makes your art skills better, it’s all good!

A Humbling Experience

I had a very humbling experience last night. The setting was an event with many former co-workers, many whom I hadn’t seen in 15 years except on Facebook.

Three different people came up to me and the first thing they said was “I am so inspired by you!” It was all about my having returned to my art and making it a priority and producing quality work, while still working as a software engineer. One of them said he has resolved to start painting again because of me. Another of them has an ivy league PhD and a technical Academy Award, but said he was inspired when I took part of a year off from regular work to focus on my art. I have so much respect and admiration for the drive and accomplishments of these people, and yet here they were telling me, completely unsolicited, that they admired me.

I had no idea that my journey meant anything to anyone else other than me. I guess the lesson is to live life as well as you can not only for yourself but because you never know who is taking note for their own lives. Another lesson for me was that the act of making art affects others in ways we might not have imagined!

Saving a Lot of Time with Swatch Charts

When you first start working with colored pencils, deciding which pencil is the right color for the moment is a matter of picking up one that seems like it might be close (based on the color of its core), scribbling a little on a scrap or the border of your drawing, assessing whether that’s indeed the color you hoped, and if it’s not, trying again.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

This adds up to a lot of time over the course of a finished drawing, especially since those little scribbles can’t tell you later which pencil they came from.  It’s surprising how different from the pencil core a swatch can look.  You end up trying the same pencils multiple times.  I actually saw a finished drawing at the California State Fair in which the artist left their test-swatch border clearly visible and remarked on it in the artwork description.


Before I made a swatch chart for this set of pencils!

This time loss is compounded if you have a large set of colored pencils such as the full set of 150 Prismacolors, and even more if you have multiple large sets of colored pencils.  So many greens!  So many blues!  Where to even start? It can seem overwhelming.  You might be tempted to print a color sheet from the manufacturer, but don’t: your printer’s inks will not match the pencils’ cores, and the printed colors will vary from printer to printer.

Here’s my time-saving system.  In a previous blog post I described how I organize my sets of pencils, and that is half the solution.  The other half is making your own swatch charts and keeping them on your drawing table while you work.  I’ve already done the hard part for you!  You can download swatch charts for the full sets of most major brands of colored pencils from my website.  They’re free–my gift to you as a fellow colored pencil artist.  Print one out and color the “points” with your own pencils, matching the color name on your pencil to the color name on the chart.  I recommend only coloring the “points”, not the whole “pencils”, so you can easily read the numbers and names.  Tape your finished chart to the top of your drawing board.  It’s important that your reference, your drawing, and the chart all be illuminated by the same light, otherwise your eyes may be fooled into mismatches. Now, notice that the swatches are numbered from 1 to whatever the set size is.  Those numbers correspond to the number tags you put on your pencils (you did read my other blog post, right?).  I recommend the numeric tags, because the color names on pencils are stamped with metallic paint and are therefore hard to read and take even more of your precious time.


A portion of a swatch chart after I colored the “points” with my own pencils.

Now when you’re working on a landscape and your reference has a deep blue color, look for a match on your swatch chart.  If its number is 44, pull the pencil tagged 44 from your set. Voilá!  Look how much time you just saved!


I looked for a violet color on the chart. I found it at #44, so I pulled out my #44 pencil.

You’re welcome!  :-)